TOAST Magazine

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

TOAST will be hosting a live discussion with Maggie O'Farrell and Jen Campbell on our instagram account. Tune in at 5pm on Tuesday 28th April to watch. Below, author Jen Campbell reviews Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell for TOAST Book Club.

When we find ourselves in strange situations, we long to see meaning in everything. I write this during lockdown and, despite living in a city, my husband and I are extremely lucky that there is a small wood at the end of our road. At 5am each day, we pull on our walking shoes and step into the mouth of this forest. For an hour, we explore its belly. Last week we stumbled across a patch of Wood Anemone. These flowers look like snowdrops or white buttercups; their sepals are white, not green, which give the appearance of petals. They are delicate little things. Greek mythology tells us they sprouted from Aphrodite’s tears, as she wept over the death of Adonis. The Romans believed that the first of these to flower every spring should be plucked as a charm against infection. Folk would herd the ghostly flowers into their arms, proclaiming: “I gather these against all diseases!” Back home and researching flower folklore, I shiver as I read that, despite being poisonous, some people believe that Wood Anemone can cure respiratory infections — that these flowers used to be tied around the necks of the sick, while their relatives sat close to them and prayed.

Agnes, more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, is a woman who believes in the healing power of plants. She lives and breathes the forest. It speaks to her; her veins run green with it. In Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, we are introduced to Agnes as a beekeeper. She has a calmness about her which means she feels no need to wear a veil, and so the townsfolk whisper that she must be a witch — after all, she once owned a hawk, and she can sometimes predict the future. They paint her with danger, and she pretends not to mind. She is married to the son of a glovemaker who now makes his fortune in the theatres of London. Together, they have three children. Soon, they will only have two.

Hamnet is about the death of one of Shakespeare’s children but William Shakespeare’s name is not mentioned once in its pages. We already know his name, it seems to be saying; we don’t need to hear it. We need to see him, instead, and hear the names of everyone around him. And, so, we open with his son, Hamnet, running through the town trying to find members of his family and then, when he cannot locate them, a physician — for his twin sister, Judith, is sick with pestilence: she has bubonic plague.

O’Farrell brilliantly captures the way in which time can trick us during periods of disaster. Hamnet pauses over tiny things, ‘momentarily slipped free of his moorings’, before the gravity of the sickness hits him and hours hurry by. His search for his family unfolds as it would on the stage: comical near-missings, passing the narrative like a baton. But Hamnet’s father cannot orchestrate this one as he would his own script, and Agnes cannot calm this sickness like she would calm her bees. Even O’Farrell cannot alter the ending of this story as, of course, it is already written, and this dance with predetermination is one of the reasons why this book works so superbly, and why it will break your heart so sharply.

The narrative swims back and forth in time, showing the meeting of Agnes and William, the families they have escaped from, and the home they have cocooned. Agnes is of the earth, literally and figuratively pregnant with their children, whilst her husband is pregnant with stories about them. She ‘a woman who [has] swallowed the moon’ and he ready to hurry back to the playhouses of London with his ‘travelling bag… Stuffed, filled, like the belly of an expectant woman.’

O’Farrell manages to write family life in such a timeless way, yet there can be no doubt, due to her deft descriptions, that we are in the late 1500s, and one can’t help but delight over the use of language: kittens described as ‘small creatures… with faces like pansies’ and the sheering of sheep as ‘fleeces [falling] like storm clouds to the ground.’

Like the various letters that fly between the characters of this book, I press this novel into the hands of all of you. I ask you to experience the forest that’s growing inside of it. It is a magical thing to behold.

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl Aquarium. Please share your thoughts and observations below for a chance to win a copy of Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell.

TOAST will be hosting a live talk with Maggie and Jen on our instagram account. Tune in at 5pm on Tuesday 28th April to watch live.

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